Today’s Gospel is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, a parable of two men with two very different prayer styles. God’s judgement is here, but I think it is not the kind of judgement that usually strikes us on our first reading. Rather than seeing the Pharisee and the tax collector as offering opposing prayers, one of which is “good” and the other of which is “bad”, I suggest that we see both as offering prayer to God, and being made righteous through God’s mercy. That alternate reading helps us to think about how we proclaim Christ’s peace in our contemporary divided culture.
Consider the first prayer: the Pharisee “stands off to himself” and prays “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” It is worth noting that this prayer is reminiscent of other Jewish prayers that we see in later centuries: “Blessed are you, O God, King of the Universe who has” … “not made me a woman,” “not made me a Gentile,” and so on. Hearers have been understandably upset by such a prayer: how could someone pray in gladness that they are not a woman like me? A Gentile like me?
Yet even in thinking “how could someone pray this”, notice how easy it is to become the Pharisee, praying in gladness not to be like “that person.” How many readers might be thinking, gratefully, “I will not be like the Pharisee” or even, “I am not like the Pharisee,” and “I will instead throw myself on God’s mercy?”
Tax collectors are (with some justification) seen as corrupt officials of a corrupt empire. In our own age of concern for political corruption, how many of us might have similar ideas about politicians and officials in our midst, or about people who voted “the wrong way”? Put differently, consider that the Pharisee’s prayer is a legitimate prayer. This is a prayer of thanksgiving for what God has given the Pharisee, indeed even for “leading him not into temptation” toward corruption. In a way, what better prayer can there be in a divided society like ours where many of us have difficulty even understanding how “the other side” thinks as they do about politics, Trump, war, peace, and more. So it should be easy, then, for us to see ourselves in the Pharisee.
Let us begin to recognize that the problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is not that the prayer itself, but with the derision that accompanies the prayer. Let us consider how easy it is for our thanksgiving to God to be marred by contempt for others, especially others who (like thieves and adulterers) perpetuate all that is wrong in our contemporary society.
Now consider the other person. The tax collector – the person who symbolized so much that a first century Palestinian person would have identified as wrong with the world – “stands far off,” notices no one else, and prays for God to have mercy on him. He does this rather than offering Pharisaic prayers of thanksgiving that precisely do notice all the other people around him. In many readings, Jesus seems clearly to mark the tax collector as the one who is more righteous: ”this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.”
Yet there is reason to consider interpretations. The Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine cautions us against a reading that names the tax collector as more righteous rather than the Pharisee – precisely because it puts us in that trap of thanking God I am not like the Pharisee.
Levine suggests instead that the Greek word (para), usually translated as “rather than”, can also be translated as “alongside.” Levine believes “alongside” fits more with both Jewish faith and the kind of puzzle that Jesus offers in this parable. Levine’s translation is thus:
“To you I say, descending to his house, this one is justified alongside that one. Because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Levine’s reading suggests the intriguing possibility that the Pharisee and the tax collector are both equally unjustified in God’s eyes, both equally offer prayer to God, though in different kinds of ways, and are equally heard by God and offered mercy. Indeed, this is the kind of equality of mercy that shows up in other parables like the “Workers in the Vineyard.”
What Good News it is to think about God’s generosity and mercy being bestowed on each of us, despite – and even because – we sin, because we think wrong things and do wrong things, just as BOTH the tax collector AND the Pharisee did. Yet God generously gives to us anyway.
In a divided world of culture wars, our way forward may well be to proclaim that Jesus comes to preach “peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Ephesians 2:17). The tax collector who “stands far off” and the Pharisee who thanks God that he is near both represent that God’s generosity is for each of us, even in this broken divided world.